Magic between a tricky spot and The Other Place

Sep 22

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Donald Sage Mackay is Ian and Henny Russell is Juliana in Sharr White’s The Other Place, the season-opener at the Magic Theatre. Below: Carrie Paff (left) plays several key characters in the unraveling mystery of Juliana’s illness. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

There’s a slippery quality to Sharr White’s The Other Place, the drama opening the Magic Theatre season. The first half of this 80-minute one-act is especially slick as we try to gain our bearings, but White and director Loretta Greco keep tilting the playing field. Just when we think we know what’s really going on in the story of a brilliant scientist’s life, along comes new information or a trip to the past that reconfigures what we thought we knew.

Memory is a tricky, tricky thing. How accurate or trustworthy are our memories? That’s a question that Juliana Smithton should be asking herself, but she’s not, because she doesn’t know anything’s wrong. A renowned medical researcher, Juliana heads a team creating a revolutionary drug that will aid in the treatment of dementia. But as we see her making a presentation on the drug to a group of doctors in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, we begin to sense that this pioneering scientist may be suffering from the very disease she’s trying to cure.

White further complicates our discovery of Juliana’s exact condition by having her narrate her own story. As played by Henny Russell, Juliana is a sharp, funny storyteller. She vacillates between her drug presentation and bringing us up to speed on what’s going on in her own life. In addition to her intense work promoting the new drug, she’s also dealing with the repercussions of her teenage daughter’s disappearance a decade ago.

It’s not long, however, before we begin to sense that Juliana is probably not the most reliable teller of her own story, and that’s when The Other Place subtly turns into a horror story. Not a slasher, blood-and-guts, ghosts-bumping-in-the-night horror story, but a reality-based tale of terror that could, and probably will, affect each of us in some way.

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Juliana is a fascinating character, not least because we’re constantly trying to piece together who is the real Juliana as opposed to the Juliana fragments we see that are affected by things other than her own personality. Russell’s performance is so grounded, and full of so many blasts of warmth, ego and genius, that’s it hard not to recoil when Juliana is sharp and defiant with the people she doesn’t realize are trying to help her.

When The Othe Place opens on Broadway later this year, Laurie Metcalf will play Juliana. She’ll be brilliant and probably rack up a bunch of awards (it’s that kind of role), but it’s hard to imagine anyone more believable in the role than Russell.

Surrounding Juliana is a trio – Donald Sage Mackay, Carrie Paff and Patrick Russell – that holds keys to her situation and to that elusive thing known as the truth. Mackay is especially sympathetic, though his character seems the least developed. Except for one key emotional scene, his function seems to be dispensing important facts and being incredibly patient.

Russell has a great telephone scene that only intensifies the mystery surrounding Juliana, and Paff has several showcase roles, including a very understanding doctor, that show off her range and charisma.

Greco’s direction is understated and solid, with a production featuring an excellent set (by Myung Hee Cho) that transitions from the cold and technical (aided by projections by Hanna Sooyeon Kim) to the warm and personal in a quick blackout.

The Other Place is as fascinating as it is unsettling, and it will linger in memory. Until it doesn’t.

[bonus interview]

I talked to playwright Sharr White for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Sharr White’s The Other Place continues through Oct. at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco, Tickets are $22-$62. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

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